Travel freedom is returning, and new traveller concerns around safety and convenience are pushing up demand for private jet charters, discovers Karen Yue
Covid safety concerns are powering private air charter business as Asia opens up, observed travel players.
Air 7 Asia, the regional division of US-based Air 7, has had to expand its fleet of three aircraft based in Singapore to six in recent months in order to cope with bookings that have “gone through the roof”, revealed executive director Stefan Wood.
The current fleet comprises a Beechcraft Premier, Lear 60, Falcon 2000, Gulfstream 150 and two Gulfstream 450s.
“To cater to our current demand, we realistically need another three aircraft in Singapore,” remarked Wood, who expects demand to only rise further as more Asian governments ease their travel requirements.
While the early days of the pandemic and travel disruption brought a wave of corporate bookings, driven largely by repatriation and urgent business travel needs, Wood said recent and forward charters were mostly for leisure and family travel.
“There are families that have not seen each other for quite some time, and they are flying from around South-east Asia to reunite,” he said.
Between scheduled commercial flights and private air charters, Wood said the second option was winning travellers over with safe distancing assurance and the promise of travel convenience.
“Travellers feel assured that they are with their family or people they know. With post-lockdown travel recovery, big airport hubs are very busy at check-in and airplanes are packed with 100 to 300 people. For private air charters, travellers only need to turn up to us at Seletar Airport, if in Singapore, and 10 minutes later they are on their aircraft and ready to take-off to their desired destination. They will land in a private jet terminal and a short moment later be in their limousine to take them wherever they want to go next,” he said.
Over in India, private jet charter operators have reported the same spike in demand, fuelled by wealthy Indians wanting to skip busy commercial flights amid the pandemic.
According to a news report by Asia Financial back in December 2021, demand for both the charter and purchase of private jets have soared. It reported that India’s fleet of 515 private aircraft has expanded by 25 per cent since October 2021.
While Mike Harlow, general manager of bespoke travel operator Scott Dunn, agrees with the advantages of private jet travel, he told TTG Asia that demand among his customers has remained consistent since the pandemic started.
Furthermore, with Asia transitioning to live with Covid, Harlow said “80 to 90 per cent of our guests are less worried, and are generally comfortable enough to travel via scheduled flights”.
Scott Dunn customers typically travel in business class or better, which provide a much higher level of privacy and distancing between passengers compared to economy class.
According to Harlow, customers who favour private jet charters now are those travelling in a family group, especially when they are with vulnerable younger children, or those who have traditionally used private jets pre-pandemic.
In Singapore, where there are limited numbers of private jets available for charter, wealthier travellers are choosing the convenience of scheduled services, which are building up capacity, observed Amy Lai, vice president, head of sales, UOB Travel.
“Singapore-based clients wanting to activate a charter may have to request for the jet to come to Singapore first, sometimes all the way from the US, and that pushes costs up,” Lai explained.
“For this reason, we see stronger demand for private air charters coming into Singapore than going out.”
Indeed, international and regional airlines have been scaling up scheduled services into and within Asia in recent weeks to cater to growing travel demand.
According to OAG, global airline capacity for the week of April 18, 2022 sits at 85.7 million seats, which is 22 per cent behind the same week in 2019. Its report for the week identified South-east Asia as the region with the strongest air capacity growth, rising by 4.3 per cent on the previous week with 44,000 more seats.
Wood is unfazed. In fact, he welcomes the expansion of scheduled services in the region.
“Singapore Changi Airport has been no-go for private jets throughout Covid. It was only in March that the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore reopened the airport to private jets, and that is fantastic. A lot of people that choose to fly to Singapore and use it as a gateway to Asia can now easily transfer onto a private jet to get to places where airlines do not fly,” he explained.
Private jet access is a boon to many private island resorts across Asia, which are gaining popularity among holidaymakers who want to rest and relax with loved ones in safe isolation. Banwa Private Island in the Philippines’ Palawan region works with Ascent Flights Global to offer guests direct flights from Manila via seaplanes and helicopters.
Furthermore, as airlines are not immediately returning services to pre-Covid levels, Wood is certain that private air charters will remain hot.
“For example, Phuket used to have 12 direct flights a day from Singapore to Phuket. At the moment, there is just a handful. If people want to go from Singapore to Phuket on a Friday afternoon after work, and return on Sunday night, there won’t be an easy option (with scheduled services). Private jets are the only way,” he said.
Not just for the rich and famous
Wood is hopeful that as more travellers come to appreciate the value of private air charters, they will also realise that such services are not just “toys for the rich and famous”.
He said a private air charter that is shared among friends would cost the same as a business class seat for each, but with elevated privacy, social distancing and travel ease.
“We have a group of seven friends chartering us in May – departing Friday afternoon to Phuket where they will spend a night, head over to Koh Samui for brunch and a great night out on Saturday, and onwards to a luxury boat trip on Sunday before flying home. We will touchdown in Singapore at 22.00. Now, that is a rockstar weekend!” he said.